Keeping Track of What You Learn

Hello everyone, my name is Pedro and I’m an information addict.

I’m always reading books, checking out news, following a few hundred blogs, following another few hundred people on twitter, checking my Facebook stream and this list just goes on as new services are constantly being launched and trying to get my attention.

If you are reading this, I bet you do the same.

How to keep yourself updated or actually learn something with all the information we are throw at everyday? It’s not humanely possible to keep track of everything read/watch/listen. If you are like me, you probably follow hundreds of information sources, mostly online. On top of that humongous amount of data, we also read books, attend conferences and meet new people. We are literally bloated by information from all sides.

Managing to digest the huge amounts of information we face.

As you might expected, there’s no Silver Bullet. Everybody seems to have their own approach when it comes to learning. Some prefer to take notes while reading, others prefer to record audio snippets, some like to create songs that resemble the information, (name your method here), some like doing pet projects. I happen to have my own technique (probably not originally mine) but since it’s being quite useful to me I believe it's worth sharing.

Once I read somewhere a good analogy about how we store information in our brain: we have two “databases” in our brain. One is the short-term memory database and the other is the long-term one. When we read something, every piece of information goes to our short-term memory which is something like a “heap” of unclassified data. As this “database” is not yet classified, our brain doesn’t know when/if that information will be useful or not. Later on, it can be even within 10 minutes or less, when we try to recall some information from it, we may not be able to easily do it because that data isn’t “categorized” yet.

How many times happened to you that you remembered something just a few hours later while doing something else?

That happens because our memory searching process is asynchronous. It means your brain is still learning the subject even after you stopped thinking about it. It's like putting food to cook on your microwave, you can even forget that is there but you will be reminded later by bell. We don't have a bell in our brains so the problem is you need to constantly remember (study) that subject in order to transfer it to your long-term memory. Now the trick question:

How to remember to remember?

You can achieve that by keeping something I like to call learning log. I’ve tried many tools to help me keep track of what I'm learning. For instance, a simple text editor, a mobile app like Pocket, Evernote or even a good old notebook. You just need to ensure you have quick and easy access to it everywhere. As I’m always checking my learning logs, I keep remembering the subjects I have demonstrated interest before. Most of those things are are shortcuts to blog posts, interviews, podcasts, which I may have read/listened only once that I eventually want to follow up. But most of the times, just the fact I’m recalling the title of an article, it helps me to internally recall the content I read before from that source. In case I don’t remember what that content was about I just go there again and skim the text to get the general idea. If even doing so, I don’t understand the content, then I mark it to read it later using Pocket/Evernote/Twitter favourites.

So now you have a sh*t load of information on your learning log.

What happens when my learning log stack is getting excessively big? Just use your common sense! If you get to the point where you always need to recall every item in your list, something is wrong! How many items should you have in your learning log? It varies from person to person. In my personal case I found 10 to be a good size. It doesn’t mean I need to learn all 10 items and them move to the next 10 items. Some items can be in your list for a relatively long time, it’s strongly dependent on how complex is the subject, how fast you can learn and your priorities.

Am I done?

Mark an item as “learned” is quite subjective. My “learned” definition is that when I get to the point I can comfortably explain the subject to someone else and answer their questions right away without googling. Setting a time constraint can help as well, like imposing yourself a 15 days limit for the items in your list.
How do you manage your learning? Share your thoughts!